Delving into the Dark Web

Much has been written in Indonesia about the ‘deep web’ and the ‘dark web’ – much of it ill-informed scaremongering. Typical of this is an article headlined “5 Risks of Entering the Internet World’s Dark Side, the Deep Web”. First, it warns, the deep web is crawling with “super viruses”. Second, your data could be stolen if you visit the dark web. Third, “exploring the deep web is a crime because it is just for criminal sites” and users are being monitored by law enforcement agencies. Fourth, there are live-streaming murder videos that will traumatize viewers. Fifth, first-time visitors will likely suffer psychiatric disorders after viewing murder and torture videos.

So-called “Red Room” sites, where users pay vast sums to watch live-streaming rapes and murders, are likely an urban myth. There have been cases where foreign nationals were involved in the live-streaming of sexual abuse of children in the Philippines, but this was not done via the dark web.

There is some confusion between the terms deep web and dark web. Most of us use only the so-called surface web, browsing content that can be found via search engines. This is the information that is being constantly monitored by governments. Yet there is much more data stored and shared online, but it is less accessible.

The analogy of an iceberg is often used to describe the surface web and deep web: only the tip is visible from the surface, the vast majority lies hidden beneath. Deep web content includes password-protected data, online banking, paywall-protected subscription services, government and corporate databases, and sites with deliberately limited accessibility.

How big is the deep web? Its size can’t be measured but various experts say it is about 500 times larger than the surface web and represents 90% of internet content. Others say the deep web’s size is grossly exaggerated.

The dark web refers to a very small section of the deep web that involves anonymity services through encrypted search engines and overlay networks. These allow users to surf the internet and host websites anonymously, and share files without being monitored. Naturally, this level of privacy appeals to criminals involved in black markets, child pornography, hacking, terrorism and fraud. But anonymity services are also used by political activists, dissidents, whistleblowers and people in countries where mainstream sites are blocked. Even Facebook has been operating since 2014 a version of its site on the dark web to prevent prying government eyes.

Date-Rape Drugs

In Indonesia, the dark web is not a huge issue, as the surface web and smartphone apps are still favoured by most local cyber-criminals. You don’t need to surf the dark web to find bad stuff. For example, there are dozens of Indonesian sites selling date-rape drugs. A typical spiel goes like, “Rohypnol pills have very powerful properties and can be used to drug a woman targeted for rape or for other crimes, but our intention in selling this sleeping pill is not for that purpose, but to make it easier for you to sleep.”

Another site offers chloroform, stating it “can be used for rape” and causes memory loss in the victim. A similar site, offering 250 ml bottles of chloroform for Rp.450,000, states “this anaesthetic is often misused by criminals who want to rob, kidnap or rape a target by first anesthetizing them”.

Police and the Ministry of Communication and Informatics are not blocking these sites or arresting their operators, so there’s no need for the culprits to use the dark web.

Tor: The Dark World?

We live in an age of digital technology addiction, potentially sharing all our data with governments. Where we live, what we buy, where we travel, what we watch, what we write. One of the leading forms of free software for ‘anonymous’ internet browsing is Tor, which was originally called The Onion Router. It’s easy to download and install. It’s not illegal to use Tor in Indonesia, provided you don’t use it for criminal purposes. It is a crime in Indonesia to encourage others to break the law, so this article should in no way be construed as guidance.

Downloading Tor does not mean you can suddenly start surfing the web with anonymity. If you don’t want governments snooping on your online activities, you will also need to use a trusted virtual private network (VPN) service so you can go online with a different IP (internet protocol) address to hide your location. A VPN will cost about US$10 per month. But even then, there is no such thing as completely anonymous browsing, as every service you use and every site you visit will store at least one piece of information to distinguish users, so devoted cyber-surveillance cops should eventually be able to piece together information to track you down. All you can do is increase your online privacy and security, reducing the risk of being monitored. You could also consider encrypting your hard drive and cloud storage to protect your data.

One of the most nefarious Tor web-hosting services was Freedom Hosting, which specialized in child porn. It was attacked by the Anonymous collective of hackers in 2011 and its owner was arrested in Ireland in 2013, and is facing extradition to the United States. Similarly, Anonymous earlier this year took down 20% of Freedom Hosting II for featuring child porn.

The most notorious dark web site was the Silk Road, which from 2011 offered a black market for all manner of illicit goods and services. It was shut down in 2013 and its American owner was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2015 without possibility of parole.

If you browse Tor for the ‘Hidden Wiki’ you can find links to sites offering all sorts of illegal services. Many of these sites are unsophisticated in design and are often down. Virtually all require payment in Bitcoin – which Indonesia is considering banning.

Supporters of the dark web claim the level of illicit activity is dwarfed by the amount of sites offering similar content on the surface web.

They say the dark web is a beacon of hope in countries where governments crack down on free speech. Also, many advances in internet technology and security stem from taboo activities.

Early porn sites facilitated the development of streaming videos and online credit card payments. Likewise, black market sites fostered growth of cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology.

Save the Children

At a recent education seminar in Jakarta, the speaker was lauding the innovative teaching methods and vocational schools of Finland and Denmark. Next, he switched to the “two biggest threats” facing Indonesian children today: internet pornography and drugs.

No one told him that Denmark was the first country in the world to legalize pornography and does not criminalize drug use, while Finland bans only child porn and has a maximum penalty of six months’ jail for drug use.

Online porn is officially one of the greatest dangers to Indonesia. Forget about children smoking, riding motorbikes without wearing a helmet, consuming unhealthy food or being exposed to toxic levels of air pollution. And don’t mention rising religious radicalism or the sexist national culture of catcalling.

Sadly, there have been many cases of child-on-child sex abuse in Indonesia. Perpetrators have said they were inspired after viewing pornography or they had also previously suffered abuse. Most cases of child sex abuse, however, involve a family member or a close person, such as a teacher.

Parents and schools should not rely on the government to “save” kids from online porn. Instead, they should provide education about sexuality, respect and appropriate behaviour, as well as the risks of sexual and online activity. Parents worried about children losing their innocence to internet porn can restrict smartphone use and ban computers from bedrooms or add a password to home wifi connections.

Since the passing of the Pornography Law in 2008, the Indonesian government has been fighting a losing battle to prevent netizens from accessing online smut. The primary targets are mainstream adult entertainment sites, such as PornHub, LiveJasmin, XVideos, xHamster and thousands of similar portals.

Those sites tend to have strict rules, banning content that depicts actual child porn, rape, snuff (murder or suicide), torture, death, violence, incest, racial slurs and hate speech. When conventional adult sites are blocked, some netizens – young and old – end up ‘stumbling upon’ lesser known sites that don’t tightly monitor content, showing the sort of videos that should be outlawed.

The government has blocked about 800,000 websites, most of them for providing pornography and gambling, and a handful for propagating religious extremism and fake news. But almost as soon as a site is blocked, there is another to replace it. Using a regular Indonesian internet service provider, many porn sites can be found and accessed via a Google search, even some appearing to offer child sex abuse videos.

A search for situs judi (gambling site) yields thousands of results. Gambling sites offer all sorts of online betting, from the outcome of European soccer games to horse racing, poker, baccarat, dominoes, slot machines, roulette, blackjack and lotteries. Typically, Indonesian agents running these sites retain about 30% of profits, while the remainder goes to bosses abroad. The penalty for running a gambling site is five years in jail, perhaps an insufficient deterrent to those who can reap up to Rp.8 billion per month by acting as agents for multiple sites.

One of the biggest gambling sites with an Indonesian interface is called sportsbobet.com. It has a helpful step-by-step guide: 1 – Register, 2 – Deposit, 3 – Play and Win, 4 – Take Your Winnings. The Communication and Informatics Ministry needs to up its game to block this sort of nonsense, as well as local child porn sites, if it is serious about protecting netizens.

One casualty of the government’s anti-porn push is the world’s eighth most popular site, reddit.com, which provides discussion forums on a broad range of topics and breaking news. The Indonesian “subreddit” is one of the most intelligent and insightful forums concerning Indonesia (admittedly, that’s not saying much), but the entire site is blocked because some corners of reddit contain links to porn.

Indonesia was in 2012 ranked third on a list of countries that access the most porn. These days it doesn’t show up in the top 10, mainly because the lists are made by mainstream porn sites, now blocked. But that doesn’t mean Indonesians are viewing less porn. One of the most common sources of porn is Twitter, and Indonesia ranks among the top five countries for use of the micro-blogging service.

If the government does crack down harder on Twitter and Google, leading to blanket bans of any sex-related content, Indonesians could end up in the dark net, but it is more likely the mainstream net and online apps will continue to cater the twisted whims of the masses.

 

See: Indonesia Prepares to Ban Sites with Obscene Content, including Facebook and Twitter

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Kenneth Yeung is a Jakarta-based editor.